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Fermilab | Batavia, IL | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Blizzard shows spirit of accelerator, detector crews

Fifteen inches of snow and blowing winds make many roads impassable in and around Fermilab. Courtesy Darren Crawford

Media and town officials said it was too dangerous to be outside; stay home, they said; enjoy a rare adult snow day. Schools closed, businesses closed, postal delivery ceased.

But operation of the Tevatron did not.

Amidst the worst blizzard in decades Feb. 1, with nearly 15 inches of snow and more than 50 mph winds producing even higher drifts, the crews that keep Fermilab’s accelerators, detectors and cryogenics systems running showed up for work.  They brought extra food and clothes, snow shoes and a determined attitude that bad weather would not best them.

Think of the accelerator operators as the Marine Corp. of science: they do the job when no one else wants to; they are the first line of defense.  The accelerator complex never ever sleeps, even with the rest of the U.S. under a blanket of snow. Shutting it down would require lengthy restart periods.

“You can’t just turn it off,” said Dan Johnson, head of the Accelerator Division’s Operations Department.  “Even when the accelerators aren’t accelerating beam all the support systems have to run. The Tevatron has to stay cold, we still need vacuum, we still need water. If you’re not careful, the accelerator tunnel could flood.

 “We just knew they were going to be here if they had to walk in with snow shoes on,” Johnson, said of the operators.  “It presented a challenge and they love a challenge so they just handled it.”

And boy did they have challenges.

Some started work early to avoid getting trapped in unplowed roads and missing their midnight shifts; others stayed late to cover for employees who lived far away and couldn’t make it in.  Some such as Aron Soha at CDF and Darren Crawford  in the Main Control Room put in 15-to 18-hour shift, catching brief respites of shut eye in out of the way rooms.

At 4 a.m.at the height of the blizzard with blowing snow nearly erasing the roadways, the Main Control Room got a call from the Meson Test Beam area from an experimenter who had struggled in from the village and said he was ready to take beam.

“That was a jaw dropper,” said Darren Crawford, operations crew chief that night.

What was not surprising was the lack of complaining.  People stayed positive, watching the weather and joking about how they beat it. Managers called in from home to check on employees throughout the lab and the Main Control Room crew made wellness check calls to CDF and DZero. The detector crews monitored the Main Control Room logbook as two operators braved the cold and near white-out conditions to attempt repairs.

A safety detector shut off on top of the MiniBooNE berm near the MiniBooNE service building, immediately killing the beam in the Main Injector.  Crews feared blowing snow or snow lightening had shorted it out.

Chris Olsen is forced to use snow shoes to check on a safety detector during the blizzard. Courtesy Darren Crawford

Checking it meant someone had to trudge halfway across the lab, in the dark, blowing snow and below-zero temperatures. A 5-minute drive turned in to 20 minutes. With only the main road plowed, operator Chris Olsen had to strap on snow shoes and tramp about 30 yards through uneven snow-filled terrain to find the detector, open it, unwrap the electronics and check it.

 After more than 15 freezing minutes, he discovered the detector hardware was fine; the problem was with the electronics card in the nice, warm service building. It turned out snow lightening had shorted out the system.  

FESS HV engineers  couldn’t get to the lab through the snow until morning. Then operators and FESS Roads and Grounds personnel helped

Two members of Fermilab’s Roads and Grounds crew clear sidewalks on Wednesday, Feb. 2, after a blizzard.

shovel a path for them to electrical boxes and hand-hauled equipment through parking lots buried in snow. First power to the Village was restored; then the Main Injector and then AD interlock technicans were able to bring the MiniBooNE safety detector back online.

Even though the Main Injector had been shut down, the last shot of protons and antiprotons before the outage continued to circle the Tevatron through the storm and beyond, providing data for CDF and DZero to analyze for 49 hours.

“We called it the little store that could,” Crawford said.

— Tona Kunz

See a Fermilab Today story about how other employees at the lab kept science doable during the blizzard.